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IT WAS 50 YEARS AGO TODAY

The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a masterpiece. Melodies, poetry, textures, moments of grandiose beauty… It’s possibly the most perfectly orchestrated album of all time, meticulously produced into an unfolding storyboard, then wrapped up in a matching gatefold sleeve. Gareth Murphy takes a look at the big one, from the biggest group ever…

Context is everything. When Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released on 1 June, 1967, nothing like it had been heard or seen before. In hindsight, what came to be termed ‘rock’ probably began with earlier albums such as Highway 61 Revisited, Pet Sounds, The Doors, Fresh Cream, The Velvet Underground & Nico, even Revolver. But there’s little disagreement that for the two-and-a-half million people who ran out and bought a copy of Sgt. Pepper… in the summer of 1967, it was the sonic detonation that blew a giant hole through the That world of mono pop. Its effect was immediate, widespread and experienced as a major event. Of its first broadcast on radio, Roger Waters never forgets “pulling the car over into a lay-by, and we sat and listened… in this old beat-up Zephyr, just completely stunned.”

Having taken 400 hours of studio time over 129 days, it was certainly a recordbreaking production intended to shock and awe. And because Abbey Road’s fourtrack equipment necessitated constant mixdowns to a second machine to free up tracks, Ringo found himself hanging around for so many lost hours, that it was Sgt. Pepper… who taught him how to play chess. It’s a fitting symbol of how this milestone project transformed The Beatles from giddy young men into thoughtful, middle-aged individuals.

POP ART Pepper… also has arguably the most iconic record sleeve in history – it was designed by Sir Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, and photographed by Michael Cooper, with input from The Beatles

To this day, Sgt. Pepper… remains the most common number-one choice of greatest albums of all time, a status unlikely to be challenged in our lives. Its legacy as a monument of British pop was formalised on its 20th anniversary, when the BBC and PBS aired It Was 20 Years Ago Today, the first landmark documentary about its making. With John Lennon dead and old wounds still sensitive, its estranged survivors stuck to the facts of the actual studio work, largely overlooking the background personal stories which, I think, better explain why such an intense energy was brewing in the first place. For we credit this record to The Beatles, but there’s a reason why Ringo was playing so much chess in the canteen, and why there’s so little of George Harrison’s guitar. And this particular story – the somewhat embarrassing one about credits, money, drugs, egos and revisionism – has taken a long time to fully emerge.

To see this album the right way around, the first thing to remove is Paul McCartney’s whole ‘Sgt. Pepper’ concept. The album’s highest points, A Day In The Life, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!, came from a nameless winter between December 1966 and February 1967. This was when they also produced Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane – which didn’t appear on the final album. Strawberry Fields Forever was the sketch that inspired the whole series.

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